Anti-vaxxers question senate bill

Two South Dakota residents hope to inject some opposition into discussion over proposed legislation. Moe Webster, of Mitchell, and Ronda Kligny, of Dell Rapids, want the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services to shoot down a bill to add th...

Two South Dakota residents hope to inject some opposition into discussion over proposed legislation.

Moe Webster, of Mitchell, and Ronda Kligny, of Dell Rapids, want the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services to shoot down a bill to add the meningococcal immunization to the list of requirements for entry to school or early child programs throughout the state.

"We just want to be able to make the choice to vaccinate or not to vaccinate our child and not have it mandated by the state," Webster said on Friday.

If approved, the bill would mandate a list of nine immunizations for students unless they receive certification from a licensed physician stating an immunization would endanger the child's life or health or a written statement signed by one parent or guardian stating the child is an adherent to a religious doctrine whose teachings oppose immunizations.

There was no testimony in opposition to the bill from the public at Wednesday's committee meeting, but it was deferred until Monday at 10 a.m. to allow the seven-member committee to review recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.


If approved, the bill would add the meningitis vaccine to a long list of required immunizations at the request of the South Dakota Department of Health, who said the meningococcal immunization is safe during Wednesday's committee meeting.

"The risk of the disease far outweighs the side effects of the vaccine," said Colleen Winter, the Department of Health's division director of family and community health. "Vaccination is the very best protection and preventative strategy that we have against infectious diseases."

Winter listed redness or pain around the site of injection and the potential of a slight fever as side effects of the immunization, which she said are common side effects with most vaccinations, but Kligny said she's had a different experience with vaccines.

Kligny, who was blindsided by the bill on Wednesday, said she once collapsed after having a bad reaction to a mandatory vaccination while serving as a member of the South Dakota Air National Guard. This experience made her question the effectiveness and quality of immunizations.

"A vaccine is completely safe until you have to experience a vaccine reaction," Kligny said.

With her experience with vaccinations, Kligny said forcing parents to immunize their children against a ninth disease is an issue of parental rights.

Kligny hopes to have the opportunity to offer testimony against the bill when it returns to the committee floor on Monday after three proponents were able to support the bill at Wednesday's meeting.

Wednesday's three supporters of the bill represented the Department of Health, the South Dakota Nurses Association and the South Dakota State Medical Association, and all agreed the policy would help protect the vulnerable populations of the state.


Winter rattled off several facts and figures in support of the bill on Wednesday, including the negative health effects meningitis can have on those infected. She said the disease can cause bloodstream and brain infections and result in brain damage, hearing loss and loss of limbs.

Another troubling effect of meningitis mentioned by Winter was the disease's fatality rate. While there were only 73 cases of invasive meningococcal disease in the state from 1997 to 2015, winter said 12 died, which is a 16 percent fatality rate. Winter also said South Dakota ranks 47th in the nation in teen vaccination rate for meningitis, about 22 percent worse than the national average.

But Webster isn't swayed by Winter's statistics. Webster claims the meningitis vaccine can have a wide variety of side effects like difficulty breathing, facial palsy, dizziness or even death.

Webster, who has three school-aged children who she does not vaccinate, agrees with Kligny that immunization is an issue of parents' rights.

"The parents should make the choice," Webster said. "Mandatory vaccination means that, basically, our children are not ours."

In part, Webster and Kligny have Republican Sen. R. Blake Curd, an orthopedic surgeon, to thank for deferring the committee's action on the proposed bill. Curd did not say whether he would support the bill, but his comments were not a resounding endorsement of the bill to add meningitis to the list of required immunizations.

"Just my own experience leads me to believe that it's those that are at increased risk that need to have the vaccination, and probably a series of them," Curd said. "And so I just wonder why we would mandate as a state that we would do that when the science - to the best of my ability to understand it - is unclear at this point."

Another committee member, Republican Sen. Arthur Rusch, said he'd heard some public concerns about the 2015 meningitis-related death of a college student who had previously received the meningococcal vaccination. Rusch asked Winter if there's any truth to the claims the student died from the vaccination or whether it is just an "urban myth."


Rusch was presumably referencing the death of Dakota Wesleyan University student-athlete Beau Keeter last September, who was found dead in his dormitory room and tested positive for bacterial meningitis. Winter also did not mention Keeter by name, but said she is not aware of any deaths caused by the meningitis vaccine.

Following Keeter's death, Department of Health Epidemiologist Lon Kightlinger recommended what he believed to be a successful immunization, referencing the exponential drop in meningitis cases in the United States from 1994 to 2014.

Despite Kightlinger's endorsement of the vaccine, Keeter's father, Jim Keeter, questioned the effectiveness of the meningitis vaccination.

The committee will could decide the fate of the bill on Monday, but one area representative said he would vote against the bill if it makes it through both the committee and the senate.

District 20 Rep. Josh Klumb said he's not opposed to vaccines, but he does not see the need to require children entering school or early childhood programs to receive the vaccination. Klumb said he's fine with colleges requiring the meningococcal vaccination, but said "we have to question their effectiveness after the death of Mr. Keeter."

Sen. Mike Vehle and Rep. Tona Rozum, also of District 20, said they will not have an opinion of the bill until analyzing its language and considering the testimony.

Webster and Kligny are hoping the Health and Human Services side with Klumb in opposition of the bill.

"It's my job to raise my kid, not the state's," Webster said.

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